Asking if your symptoms could mean menopause or pregnancy is becoming a more frequent question, with some women going through menopause early in life and others conceiving later than was once the case.

Many people will have heard a story about a woman who thought she was going through menopause but found out she was pregnant instead. This kind of surprise can undoubtedly cause great shock, which is why it is essential to understand the differences and similarities between the two conditions.

In this article, we look at the signs and symptoms of both menopause and pregnancy, and how to distinguish one from the other.

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Some pregnancy symptoms could be mistaken for perimenopause.

Menopause is the time in a woman's life when she no longer has menstrual periods. It is a stage that occurs when her body stops making so much of the hormones estrogen and progesterone.

Doctors consider a woman to be in menopause when she has not had any menstrual bleeding, even spotting, for 12 consecutive months.

Before menopause, women typically go through a transition period called perimenopause. During this time, a woman may notice that her periods start to change in regularity, duration, and by the amount of bleeding.

According to the United States Office on Women's Health, most women start perimenopause in their mid- to late-40s and may experience perimenopause for between 2 to 8 years.

Symptoms of menopause

In addition to changes in her periods, a woman may experience other signs of menopause. These include:

  • hot flashes, or sudden feelings of extreme heat, causing discomfort and sweating
  • difficulty sleeping well
  • mood swings
  • increased frequency of urination and urinary tract infections
  • vaginal dryness that may make sex uncomfortable
  • lack of interest in sex

Symptoms of pregnancy

Many symptoms of menopause are similar to those of pregnancy.

When a woman is pregnant, she will not have a period but may experience some light spotting that could be mistaken for a period. Many pregnant women also experience mood swings and problems sleeping.

Other symptoms associated with pregnancy include:

  • fatigue
  • headaches
  • nausea or vomiting, especially in the mornings
  • having to use the bathroom more frequently
  • tender, swollen breasts

Because many of these symptoms are similar to those of menopause, it is possible that a woman could think she is pregnant while she is, in fact, going through menopause, and vice versa.

There are a variety of ways a woman can identify if she is pregnant or going through menopause.

Diagnosing pregnancy

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Carrying out an ultrasound is the most reliable way to test for pregnancy.

If a woman suspects she may be pregnant, she can choose to purchase a home pregnancy test from a drugstore.

These tests measure the levels of the pregnancy hormone human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG) in a woman's urine.

hCG is typically present in more significant amounts when a woman is pregnant. It is important to remember that these home pregnancy tests are not 100 percent accurate.

For more accuracy, a doctor can perform blood tests to measure the raised levels of the hormones associated with pregnancy, such as hCG and progesterone.

However, the most definitive way to test if a woman is pregnant is for a doctor to perform an ultrasound and test for the presence of a fetal heartbeat. An ultrasound uses sound waves to detect the presence of a fetus.

Diagnosing menopause

Perimenopause and menopause can sometimes be difficult for doctors to diagnose.

Doctors can test for the presence of hormones, such as estrogen and progesterone, which typically decrease when a woman is going through menopause. However, these hormones naturally change throughout each month, so a test result showing low or high hormone levels does not always mean a woman is experiencing menopause.

To be sure that a woman is in menopause, a doctor will likely consider all of the symptoms she has been experiencing, including changes in her periods. The doctor may also perform blood tests to identify hormone levels.

A doctor may not be able to predict when a woman's periods will stop altogether.

If a woman is in menopause, there are several steps she can take to stay healthy. These include:

Eating a healthful diet

A woman should eat lots of fruits, vegetables, lean meats, and low-fat dairy. She should also include plenty of calcium and vitamin D, as these are associated with strong bones. Estrogen decreases during menopause, which can cause bones to become less dense than they once were.

Exercising

Exercise helps to relieve stress, keep muscles strong, and the heart healthy.

Exercise does not have to be overly strenuous to be effective. Walking, cycling, or participating in an exercise class, such as aerobics, for 30 minutes daily, are all examples of good exercise habits.

Seeing a doctor for regular check-ups

Yearly checkups can help a doctor identify any health issues or treatments a woman may need when she is experiencing menopause. As a general rule, the earlier any problem is diagnosed, the more effective the treatment.

Taking hormone replacement therapy (HRT)

Some women may also opt to take hormone replacement therapy (HRT) during or after menopause. HRT can reduce some of the symptoms associated with menopause but may have adverse side effects.

Among the issues to be aware of is that HRT can increase a woman's risk of developing breast cancer.

All women considering HRT should look at the pros and cons with their doctor first.

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During pregnancy, it is essential to drink plenty of water to keep both mother and baby hydrated.

Doctors consider pregnant women who are 35 years of age or older, as of "advanced maternal age."

A global study published in BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics & Gynaecology, found that around 12.3 percent of pregnant women fitted into this category.

Regardless of age, there are some steps a woman can take to promote a healthy pregnancy for herself and her baby. They include:

  • Changing lifestyle habits: Pregnant women should avoid habits that include smoking, using illegal drugs, and drinking excessive amounts of alcohol that can cause birth abnormalities or other fetal problems.
  • Reviewing medication: A pregnant woman may wish to review any medications she is taking with her doctor, to ensure they are safe during pregnancy.
  • Eating a healthful diet: Pregnant women should eat lots of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Many doctors recommend that pregnant women should avoid sushi and other raw meats, deli meat, high-mercury fish, raw shellfish, raw eggs, and unpasteurized milk because they may increase risks of complications for the baby.
  • Taking steps to relieve stress and anxiety: These can include activities such as meditating, light exercise, writing a journal, listening to music, or reading a book.
  • Getting plenty of sleep: Rest is important to help a pregnant woman keep her energy levels intact.
  • Drinking plenty of water: A woman's blood volume increases dramatically during her pregnancy, which means she needs plenty of water to keep her and her baby hydrated. As a general rule, if a woman's urine is pale yellow, she is well-hydrated.

A woman should make an appointment with a doctor who specializes in the care of pregnant women, known as an obstetrician, according to her doctor's advice. Regular prenatal care can help a doctor identify and anticipate potential birth complications.

Because pregnant women and women who are going through menopause experience many similar symptoms, it can sometimes be difficult to identify which condition is which.

So, any woman who is not sure what her symptoms mean should speak to a doctor for advice or have further tests.